By Gary Sheffield Crown Copyright © 2007 Gary Sheffield
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780307352224
You can be shunned and scorned,” my grandfather said. “You can be abused and confused, but if you have Inside Power, you have everything. Inside Power is what gets you through.”
I thought Grandpa was talking about blasting the ball when they pitch it close to your body.
Turns out that was only part of it.
This business of Inside Power is the lesson of a lifetime. Fact is, it’s the story of my life: how I learned it, lost it, and finally found it again; how Inside Power changed everything about me.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to preach or give some lecture.
I’m just going to tell you a story about how a boy became
It starts in the backyard when I’m four.
The summer heat was brutal. Must have been a hundred degrees, but I didn’t care. I was with my uncle. My uncle was my sunshine. My uncle was letting me into his world and, man, my heart was singing.
Two little boys running around the backyards and sandlots of Tampa, Florida, 1972.
Dwight Gooden, age eight.
Gary Sheffield, age four.
Dwight was my uncle, Mama’s younger brother, fourteen years younger than Mama—and to me, an only child, a big brother.
I always wanted to be in Dwight’s world. Hewas strong and athletic. He was tall for his age and the apple of his parents’—my grandparents’—eye.
Little boys look up to big boys. Little boys want to be big boys. Little boys dream big dreams, and I was no different. I wanted to run with the older guys. Wanted to do whatever they did. Wanted to get out there and show ’em I was big enough to play.
Dwight was finally letting me in. I’d been begging, he’d been resisting, and now he finally agreed.
We were going to play ball.
I’d been watching him as long as I was alive. I’d been waiting for this moment. I had the blind courage of a kid who didn’t know any better. Man, I was ready.
When you’re a kid, nothing matters but playing—not the stifling heat, not your scrawny body, not your raggedy little shorts. You just want to get out there and mix it up.
The dirt lot was scruffy, the ground uneven, weeds and rocks popping up everywhere.
“You stand right here,” said Dwight before walking off forty-six feet, the exact distance between the mound and home plate in Little League. “You gotta catch me,” he added. “I gotta practice.”
Catch him? Sure, I’ll catch him! I’ve been dying to catch him! I’ve been going to his Little League games and watching him pitch.
Now I’m in on the action!
We didn’t have any gloves, just a white rubber ball. I crouched down in my best imitation of a catcher. Dwight wound up and let it rip. The thing came at me with such blinding speed, I jumped out of the way. It blew right past me.
Dwight laughed. “You ain’t ready,” he said.
“I am too. Throw it again.”
I stood there, determined to hold my ground. The second pitch came in like lightning. This time I reached out to catch it, but the ball struck with such force I felt my arm rip from my shoulder. I’d never felt such pain.
“Wanna quit?” asked Dwight.
I wanted to say yes, but instead I said, “Throw me grounders,” figuring grounders would be easier.
The first grounder, though, hit a rock, flew up and smacked me hard in the face. That was it. I started crying and ran inside.
“Come on,” Dwight protested. “Let’s keep playing.”
“Mama! Grandpa!” I cried. “I don’t wanna play with Dwight. It hurts to play with Dwight!”
“It’s all right,” said my mother, looking to console me and cuddle me in her arms.
“It ain’t all right,” said my grandfather, Dwight’s dad. “The boy needs to learn. Get back out there, Bug”—Grandpa called me Bug because of my saucer-sized eyes—“and learn to catch the ball. Dwight needs to practice. Just get past the pain.”
“I don’t want no pain,” I protested.
“Get out there!” Grandpa insisted. “Dwight’s calling you.”
For years Dwight kept calling me. And for years I answered the call. During those first years, I didn’t want to. Didn’t want to catch his fireballs. Didn’t want to get popped in the eye when a grounder hit a rock and flew in my face. Didn’t want to run down the ball when Dwight blasted it a mile over my head.
“Hey, Bug,” Dwight kept pushing, “you wanna quit?”
He knew I did. But he also knew that Grandpa wouldn’t
“You can’t take it anymore, can you?” he taunted.
“Yeah, I can,” I said.
“Well, take this!”
He let loose another pitch that flew at me like a red-hot comet. If I didn’t catch it, he’d laugh; if I did catch it, my hand would burn like fire.
I tried to catch it, but the ball smashed into my middle finger, bending it back till I was crying in agony.
Ran back inside. Ran back to Mama.
But Mama gave in to Grandpa who said, “Bug, get back out there.”
“But I can’t move my finger,” I protested.
“Soak it,” said Grandpa. “It’ll come round.”
And eventually so did I.
I stuck it out with Dwight. I sucked it up. From the very first moment I started throwing and catching a ball, I felt pressure. I had to hang in with my uncle. But it was also always something I wanted to do. Pain was part of it, but it was fun. It was all mixed together.
Pressure, pain, and fun.
How does a little kid deal with all that?
He doesn’t think about it; he just keeps playing; he just wants to get better; just wants to compete with the big boys.
Day after day, spring after spring, summer after summer, fall after fall, I learned to catch my uncle’s fireballs. My hands were always sore, my face bruised, but something in my spirit got strong. I wasn’t going to be a crybaby.
“We ain’t having no crybabies in this family, Bug,” said Grandpa. “I don’t wanna see you crying, and I don’t wanna hear you complaining.”
I learned to keep the crying on the inside; on the outside, I acted brave.
“Don’t let Dwight break you,” urged my grandfather. “Don’t let anyone break you. Remember—you got that Inside Power.”
Inside my heart, I was slowly learning to love baseball. I was getting the hang of it. I still couldn’t catch most of my uncle’s rockets, but once in a while I’d grab one and hold on to it for dear life. Nothing made this little boy happier.
. . .
Dwight was the center of our family’s attention.
“Dwight’s got what it takes,” Grandpa would tell anyone who’d listen. “I do believe the boy’s gonna be a star.”
Everyone was proud of Dwight. And I was proudest of all. Proud to be his nephew. Proud to be seen in his company.
My uncle also intimidated me. Dwight was bigger, stronger, better at everything.
In the eyes of a six-year-old, a ten-year-old is a giant. At ten, Dwight was already famous in Little League. In my family, he was the Golden Boy.
I loved my family with all my heart. My family was everything warm and wonderful in this world.
My mom, Betty Jean, and my dad, Harold, were tight. Mom’s whole life was family—her sister, her kid brother Dwight, and her parents; she was devoted to them and to me, heart and soul. Dad was a shipyard supervisor, a contractor and a construction expert. He was also a bodybuilder. No one messed with my daddy. He was my superhero.
“Your daddy ain’t even your daddy,” said Dwight, angry that I wouldn’t go back outside to play catch. My hands were still hurting from catching him a few hours ago. I’d had enough punishment for one day.
“What do you mean my dad ain’t my dad?” I asked.
“He ain’t your real dad.”
I was confused. I didn’t even know what “real dad” meant.
“This other guy’s your real dad,” said Dwight. “He’s a real thug. Ask your mom. You don’t even know who your real dad is.”
When I asked Mom, she looked at me like I’d hurt her. Then she started tearing up. She took me in her arms and said, “I love you, and Harold loves you too, Bug, but there’s another man who’s your father. He’s the man who I got pregnant by. If you want to meet him, he wants to meets you.”
I was curious, but still unsure of what was happening. The expression “pregnant by” didn’t mean a lot to me. Dwight filled in the details in a way that blew my mind. He spelled out the facts of life.
Then one day my real father showed up. He said his name was Marvin, but he never told me his last name. I just presumed it was Sheffield. He never said to call him “Daddy,” and I never did.
He gave me a small stack of money. Someone said he owned a poolroom.
“Tell him you want the bills that have a hundred written on them,” said Dwight, “not just ten.”
I didn’t want to tell the man anything. Something about him made me uneasy.
“He’s toting those guns,” I heard my dad Harold say. “I don’t want him around Bug.”
Little kids are fascinated by guns, and I was no different, but I also knew to stay away from Marvin. He’d pat me on the head, give me cash, but I never felt connected to him, not the way, say, I felt connected to my grandfather.
My grandfather was in charge of a family. The man who came by with piles of cash was in charge of a poolroom. Even a little kid called Bug knew the difference.
I was born November 18, 1968.
I was only two years old during the baseball season of 1971, when my grandfather started making me watch the Atlanta Braves on television. That year Hank Aaron hit forty-seven home runs.
“Hank is the man,” said Grandpa.
Dwight, myself, and my cousin Derek were lined up on the couch. Grandpa was in his armchair, leaning forward, studying the game. He was our teacher.
“Hank is the master,” Grandpa repeated over and again. “Watch his every move.”
Grandpa’s name was Dan Edward Gooden. He came from a little town in Georgia called Leslie. He was a big man, over six feet, 250 pounds. Grandpa had played in the semi-pros. Then a hip injury ended his career and left him with a limp. He made a living working at a chemical plant in Tampa, but his passion was baseball. He coached a few amateur teams. Mostly, though, he coached me, Derek, and Dwight. We were going to do everything he hadn’t been able to do. Where he’d fallen short, we had to exceed all expectations. We’d complete what he couldn’t finish. We’d carry the torch.
The pressure he felt, the pain he endured, the fun he experienced would be our pressure, our pain, our fun.
“Hank Aaron is the measure of a man,” he said. “Look what he’s been through. Look what he’s overcome. You boys know the name of his team when he played in the Negro League?”
“The Indianapolis Clowns. Now ain’t that something. They take a bunch of grown men—men who had to be better than ninety percent of the white boys playing in the big leagues—and they call them clowns. They demean them. They disrespect them. They treat ’em like fools. They mistreat ’em like they’re servants or slaves. They segregate ’em into a league so they won’t make the white boys look bad. And how does Hank react to all that? My man reacts the same way Jackie Robinson reacted when they brought him up to the Dodgers in forty-seven. The Hammer reacts with his bat.
“Robinson was the same. By forty-nine, Jackie was leading the league and hitting three forty-two. Hell, by the time he hung it up, he’d played in six World Series and stolen home seventeen times. Sure, he got spat on. They called him ‘nigger’ practically every day of his life. They booed him and threw bottles at him. Same thing with Hank. They started booing Hank when they saw he was building up to Ruth’s home run record. They don’t want a black man crowned home run king. So what does the Hammer do? Goes out and hits another one. And then another.
“So study your history, boys, and learn about the men who busted down the doors for you to walk through. Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Dan Bankhead. History’s forgotten Bankhead, but Bankhead was the first black pitcher to throw in the majors. He was with Robinson on the Dodgers. Same day he makes his debut as a relief pitcher, he steps up to bat and hits it out of the park. He wasn’t going to mess up his moment in the sun. No, sir, these were performers. These were pioneers. These were giants.”
Grandpa would teach us history, but he would also teach us here-and- now baseball. The “Game of the Week” was our weekly lesson.
“Watch the runner on first, he’s about to take off on a hit-and-run,” he’d predict. Dwight and I saw how his predictions never failed.
“The outfield is too shallow,” he’d say or, “The infield is too deep.”
My grandfather loved strategy. He was a thinker. In technical terms, he saw the game like a chess match. “Sure, you use your body,” he liked to say, “but you use your brain even more. You anticipate. If you read the pitcher right when you’re hitting, you’ll hit the thing. If you read the hitter right when you’re fielding, you’ll catch the thing. Thinking is as much a part of the game as playing. I want you boys to be thinking players, smart players. We didn’t raise no fools in this family.”
More and more, Grandpa included me in his baseball discussions. I loved that. Earlier, when I was four or five, all his remarks were directed at Dwight. Then, beginning when I turned six, he started speaking to both of us. Watching me play outside with Dwight, he saw that I was no quitter. I’m not saying that I didn’t have many days—in fact, many weeks and months—when I would have skipped playing with Dwight if I’d had a choice. No kid likes humiliation. But the more I did it, the more I stuck with it.
Grandpa saw something else about me.
I liked to fight.
Another blistering afternoon in Tampa.
Dwight’s been bugging me like crazy to go and play. I don’t wanna. I wanna stay inside and watch Jackson 5 cartoons on TV.
“I won’t throw hard at you,” Dwight promises.
“You always throw hard,” I say.
“I’ll take it easy.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Come on, Bug, I feel like throwing the ball.”
“Then go ahead and throw it.”
“I need you to catch me. No one else knows how.”
Dwight knows how to flatter me. And the truth is, little by little, I actually am learning to catch his firebombs and sweeping curves. Continues...
Excerpted from Inside Power by Gary Sheffield Copyright © 2007 by Gary Sheffield. Excerpted by permission.
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